Monday, July 18, 2011

A Few (Playful!) Ideas on Perspective and the Fourth Wall

 "Me to play" (Hamm, in Samuel Beckett's Endgame)

In the first chapter of her book, The Originality of the Avant-Garde, Rosalind Krauss mentions perspective. She is working on detaching perspective’s crossed wires (the ones we all remember from Art History blackboards) from her reader’s impressions of the grid, which she wants to discuss at much greater length. It may not be fully polite to pull these few brief phrases on perspective away from their context for greater attention, but I do believe that Rosalind Krauss will understand. I am playing with what she says here, starting with her entirely authoritative view on the subject....

A young model and painter recently remarked that she was collecting books about perspective. She doesn’t mention why. I believe that we do not think about the ways we “assume” perspective, any more than we think about the fourth wall between us and actors on the stage -- until a dramatist calls our attention to it. Modernism and post-modernism and post-post were the arts meant to wake us up -- but we still see those lines in our dreams.

Here is the core of what Krauss writes: for fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, “the perspective lattice is inscribed on the depicted world as the armature of its organization …. Perspective was … the science of the real, not the mode of withdrawing from it.  Perspective was the demonstration of the way reality and its representation could be mapped onto one another, the way the painted image and its real-world referent did in fact relate to one another – the first being a form of knowledge about the second …” (10). 

The “lattice” of perspective is “inscribed on” a picture as the “armature of its organization,” Krauss says. She is perfectly right; the “lattice” is not integral to the scene the artist wishes to portray. Lovely word, lattice, but, architecturally, it is meant to separate the man or woman at the window from all that he or she surveys, as with these women in John Frederick Lewis's "Indoor Gossip, Cairo" from 1873:

 And, as Krauss notes, perspectival lines must be “inscribed” by the artist’s hand, imposed from without; the landscape is branded, really, re-organized, so that we can readily trace the object back from our marked spot as viewer to the vanishing point.  

We have been taught to see. We imagine the horizon line, and not only when we look at a painted landscape.  As we go on vacation, and gaze at sunsets, we sketch in the diagonal lines ourselves, and see the two rows of trees, or the grapevines, or the jetty, stretching to that imaginary horizon, each tree or rock diminishing, one after the other, in precise rhythm.  As we do this bit of artwork up against real horizons, we must not move, ourselves, as that would completely spoil the lines.

Krauss says that perspective was  [and many would say, still is] “the science of the real, not the mode of withdrawing from it.”  And yet, think of that lattice: a means of withdrawal; again, John Frederick Lewis, in "The Siesta," from 1876:

(See... isn't this fun?) We must remain motionless, on its other side, just as we must remain motionless in our seats and imagine that “wall” between us and the very-contemporary human onstage playing the role of the king, the one written in the 16th century.  And yet, even Shakespeare wrote in asides, the little winks to the audience that broke the wall.  Aren’t we able, then, to move from our rooted spot in the landscape, as Constable did when he packed up his brushes and went in to lunch, after painting "Hadleigh Castle, the Mouth of the Thames -- Morning After a Stormy Night," in 1829:

Wouldn’t movement be more scientific?

Krauss ends the remarks on perspective by saying that “reality and its representation” were, for these early artists, “mapped onto one another,” since they saw perspective as a “form of knowledge” about their “real-world referent” (10).  It was, for a long time, a required way of knowing. But it should not carry such pure authority now. David Hockney has said that the problem with perspective is that “it stops time. …. Space has become frozen, petrified” (from True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney, by Lawrence Wechsler, published in paper by The University of California Press, p. 66).  And that same critic who interviewed Hockney, Lawrence Wechsler, quotes an earlier artist, Jacques Riviere, who said in 1912 that “perspective is the sign of an instant, of the instant when a certain man is as a certain point …. But in reality, we can change position: a step to the right, a step to the left, completes our vision” (Wechsler, 197). 

So, wouldn’t it be fun to really think about perspective; if we do use it, as painters, let’s play with it, let’s break it down, the way a Shakespearean actor breaks down that final wall, with an aside to our audiences…. As Hamm would say, "Me to play."

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